On the planet Heterosexual there is a race of men who lack the ability to seduce women and whom women never attempt to seduce. Their numbers are unknown, although, in some metaphysical way, all males may carry their recessive gene. Nevertheless, these men make feeble, sometimes touching, often offensive, but always failed attempts to lure women to them. Typically, these women are much younger than they are.
Enter artist Laurel Nakadate, the half-Japanese 29-year-old 2001 Yale MFA photography graduate and standout in the current “Greater New York” exhibition. Nakadate puts herself into a position to encounter these men, allowing herself to be partially drawn into the webs they hope to weave. They “hit on” her, then she strikes like a trap-door spider, responding with her own counter- proposal. Arranging to go to their apartments or elsewhere, she arrives with a video camera and convinces them to enact strangely suggestive but asexual scenarios with her.
In the video Lessons 1–10 (2001), she poses braless in a tank top and pink short shorts atop a table as one of these men draws her. As he looks at her, she—the “object of the male gaze”—looks directly at the camera, letting us know that she knows what’s going on. It’s all incredibly twisted. She turns from a baby doll into an avenging angel and a wolf in baby doll’s clothing. Nakadate has staged birthday parties in which men sing “Happy Birthday” to her while she feigns delight. On some cosmic level, Nakadate is always “faking it.” Sometimes she’ll play dead while they snap pictures of her, other times she has them place a stethoscope to her chest or trace the curves of her absent body in midair. There’s always a gaping hole in the center of Nakadate’s world, something that echoes the disaster of prescribed sexual roles.
Voyeurism, exhibitionism, and hostility merge with gullibility, cunning, and folly in Nakadate’s work. Not only is this creepy, it’s confusing and complicated. The roles of hunter and hunted are blurred. Nakadate turns the tables on these men and also on herself. No one comes out of these Lolita-complex revenge fantasies unscathed.
The centerpiece of this exhibition is a three-channel video. Nakadate’s work hasn’t changed much since her first exhibition in 2002; if anything, it is simply more focused, impudent, and annoying. As in a horror film, you sporadically want to yell, “Get out of there, you idiot.” Interestingly, you want to yell this at the men as much as at her. In one section of the video, Nakadate toys with these would-be lotharios in their own lairs, having them either crouch in cages or crawl on the floor like dogs while she imitates a cat. The men are always off balance in these wicked games, careful not to transgress, but visibly tempted to go further. Nakadate is off balance too, but in different ways. She’s always in control, a kind of aggressive “Olympia” presence, artificial, at risk, and dangerous simultaneously.
Nakadate is melding disparate bits of artistic DNA to crackerjack effect. On a visual level she’s combining the force of Barbara Kruger’s use of pronouns like
you and we by getting us to think about
her and them. She crosses this with the way Louise Lawler’s photographs essentially say, “Look at the way ‘they’ hang ‘their’ art in ‘their’ museums,” then introduces the socially constructed sexual roles in Cindy Sherman’s “Film Stills.” Nakadate combines these hardcore feminist photographic essences with the taboo gutter love of Robert Melee and the anti-feminism that lies at the dark heart of Vanessa Beecroft’s amazingly complicated and compelling art. To this Nakadate adds her own slutty, back-alley exoticism, her vulnerability, insight, and isolation.
On the Heterosexual planet men rule through a combination of upper-body strength, institutionalized discrimination, hogwash, and sheer arrogance. Women are always in danger. Nakadate isn’t, at least not in her work. She clearly chooses her subjects as carefully as they choose her. She could never do this with “normal” predators. If a young male artist preyed on women this way he’d risk being kicked out of the art world. Either way, Nakadate exploits female sexuality as ruthlessly as any man.
In Where You’ll Find Me she acts out suicide scenarios. We see her “dead” in various locales. Here, Nakadate represents primal neediness, the fantasy of “They’ll know how much they love me when I’m gone.” Then out of nowhere and completely anomalously, she suddenly comes close to the camera, looks from side to side, pulls her shorts to the left, stands, and pees while looking directly at you. It’s weird and very feral. In Love Hotel, a similarly narcissistic and conflicted caprice unfolds as Nakadate writhes almost naked on various beds. As alone and pitiable as the men, she’s seeing what she would look like if she could actually be with a real person. It’s onanistic exhibitionism, very peculiar, strikingly devoid of real feeling, and disquieting.
A seeming absence of feeling is one of the touchstones of Nakadate’s art. In the chilling, tear-jerking video We Are All Made of Stars Nakadate appears on her roof dressed as a Girl Scout as the World Trade Center smolders behind her. She stands, stares at the camera, teary eyed, and says nothing. Nothing needs to be said. It’s uncanny to think about an artist making art that morning about that morning. Nakadate is a damaged unit and a loose cannon; she’s clever, attention-grabbing, and slightly mad: a very promising combination.